Sunday, February 14, 2016

Need a super-confessor?

According to the BBC News website, to mark the Vatican’s jubilee year, the Pope has ‘sent more than 1,000 priests [nicknamed ‘super-confessors’] on a global mission to forgive grave sins that normally only he, or a top Church official, may pardon.’ Such ‘grave sins include defiling consecrated bread and wine, violating confessional secrecy, and plotting to kill a pope.’

You can read more about the story here:

Now, I cannot claim to be an expert on contemporary Roman Catholic theology. For what it's worth, I would actually have quite a bit of time for Pope Francis, and no doubt he would give a more sophisticated account of this than a brief piece on the BBC website. But let me say something from an Anglican Evangelical point of view (which of course I would claim is faithful to the Bible) about the confession of sin and forgiveness, against the background of this story. Much more could be said but perhaps this short post will be sufficient to suggest an approach.  

In our Sunday services, we often introduce the prayer of Confession with these words from the Bible:

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us; but if we confess our sins, he [God] is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 

            1 John 1:8-9, quoted in The Book of Common Prayer & Common Worship service books.

The confession here is surely to God himself. There is nothing in the context to suggest confession to a priest, or indeed only in a church service. It is of course God who forgives, and notice that he promises ‘to cleanse us from all unrighteousness’ if we seek his pardon. It is because Jesus has taken the punishment for all those who will put their trust in him that God is just to forgive our sins.

According to The Prayer Book, ‘God… hath given power and commandment to his Ministers, to declare and pronounce to his people, being penitent, the Absolution and Remission of their sins’. What the minister does here is remind the congregation of God’s promise and preach the good news to them. God ‘pardoneth and absolveth all them that truly repent and unfeignedly [that is, genuinely] believe his holy Gospel.’ Again, it seems clear that God forgives all our sins when we turn from all that we know to be wrong, and put our trust in Jesus. There is no implication that some sins require special absolution from certain senior clerics.

The New Testament does encourage us to confess our sins to one another and pray for one another (James 5:16) but this confession could be to any other believer, not just a priest. For some, it might sometimes be helpful to discuss some of your struggles with your pastor, but other Christians might be just as helpful, and this kind of ‘confession’ is not a condition of the reassurance of forgiveness that we all receive each Sunday as the minister reminds us of God’s Word. I’d always be happy to speak with any parishioner whose conscience is troubling him or her, but I wouldn’t be assigning penances. If we feel a burden of guilt, we need only look with faith to Jesus. He would speak words of comfort to us, as he did to the penitent thief who died on a cross beside him.

The Bible teaches us that there is ‘one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men’ (1 Timothy 2:5). The clergy are essentially Bible-teachers and pastors, not go-betweens between people and God. One of the great themes of the Letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament is that the Lord Jesus Christ is our all sufficient High Priest. He has offered himself once and for all for sins, and so the way to God is open through him. Because Jesus was tempted in every way as we are, we can bring our confession directly to him knowing that he understands our human condition and sympathises with our weakness. Hebrews urges us to approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, trusting in Jesus (Hebrews 4:14-16). He is, if you like, the super-confessor we all really need.  

No comments: